Taking It To The Next Level

My career as a theatre critic started in university when I chanced upon Kent Ridge Common, an online student-run publication, which offered ample opportunities to review shows.

Two years later, I signed up for a module on theatre criticism offered by the theatre studies department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Being equipped with certain theoretical frameworks, challenged to write reviews for different media, and having to read them aloud to approximately thirty people really forced me to consider my voice as a critic, who my reader was, and what my functions are.

The course led me to convert this website to solely focus on the arts and to sign up as a citizen reviewer for Centre 42 from 2014 till today.

In the past five years, I have gained more confidence and am increasingly aware of my artistic tastes and the sort of critic that I want to be. Having practised this craft for half a decade, it is time to take it further—it is time to be a professional independent theatre critic.

What Does This Mean?

The fundamental change would be to strive to turn this craft into a source of revenue amongst other artistic pursuits. Your support will enable me to broaden my coverage to include more long-form interviews and profiles, dance reviews, and even book reviews.

My reviews will always be public and free for all to read. Your support will determine the breadth and depth of my coverage, and supporters will receive bonus content.

Editorially, I will be stricter on developing a house style. I will take my cue from Mr Hart by referring to New Hart’s Rules. I will depart from a few of his recommendations purely out of personal preference.

In terms of work flow, I will try to publish my review within a week of watching the show. I have no intention of being the first, for there are many others who are adept at that. Rather, I shall follow the footsteps of Mr Kenneth Tynan and “write for posterity” as much as it is meant for the present.

Why Does It Matter?

Arts criticism is part of the arts ecology. Artists aim to inspire, provoke, comfort, or entertain their audience. Criticism is thus an articulated response to the work. It is the opening salvo; the first hand in the air.

With arts funding in Singapore still largely reliant on state funding, the perennial question is, What do the people want or need? Artists and authorities have been justifying their aims in response to this question without answering a more fundamental one: Who constitutes “the people?”

Hence, my reviews seek to be a platform from which theatre-goers can respond to and articulate their opinions. After all, in an incredibly realistic country such as Singapore, for someone to invest time and money into something counts a lot.

I also seek to document these debates as one indicator of what the people want.

How Can I Support You?

Regardless of who you are, there are several ways that you can support me. All the details can be found on this page.

Apart from doing this as a regular gig, the ultimate goal is to be able to commission other writers on a regular basis and pay them at market rates. While much have been said about the need for arts criticism, proper opportunities are very few and far between.

But beyond financial or in-kind support, an equally important contribution is to really respond to my reviews. Tell me your opinions about the show. Even if it is a response to a particular point I made, it is very helpful for all involved.

I look forward to having you on this new journey with me.

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Nancy Yuen Celebrates Her Career As An Opera Singer

In the lead-up to the Singapore Lyric Opera’s (SLO) Gala Concert which celebrates Nancy Yuen’s operatic career, I spoke to the soprano about her career and plans for SLO as artistic director. 

What was your first encounter of opera, and is there a specific event
that made you decide to become a professional opera singer?

I have always enjoyed singing on stage since the age of 7. As for opera performance, my first encounter was when I was around 20 years old—I was invited to sing one of the principal roles in a short opera called Le Cinesi by Gluck to orchestral accompaniment, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I decided to pursue my interest in the most serious form  by enrolling as a student at the Royal Academy of Music.

What are the challenges of being an opera singer today as compared to
when you first started out?

YouTube and the internet did not exist when I first started. We were all trained to attend as many performances as possible to watch the top artists at work,  observe the intricacies of stage craft, and absorb the whole ambiance inside the theatre during the performance.

Nowadays, a lot of singers watch opera performances on the internet and listen to the electronic sound coming out of the computers and mobile phones. They end up paying more attention to the facial expressions of the singers rather than the artistry. Unfortunately, as technology progresses, development of live performing arts somehow suffers as people have a difference preference to watching theatrical performances.

If you can only pick three highlights of your 30-year career, what
would it be?

My debut performance  which marked my transition from a student to being the prima donna in Madama Butterfly in 1988 with the Welsh National Opera. That was my biggest breakthrough.

Second, the standing ovation at the 4500-seater Royal Albert Hall in 2000, also as Madama Butterfly.

Another highlight was singing my first Wagnerian role as Senta in Der Fliegende Holländer in Singapore in 2016, which was tremendously thrilling. 

Under your leadership, SLO has been an advocate of bringing opera to
the masses. Why do you think it is important for more people to
experience opera?

Opera is the most complete art form of theatrical experience, with music, drama, sets, costumes, and lighting. They all come together to bring the audience into intricate worlds created by the composers and librettists with the help of directors, conductors, and singers.

We all need a little escape to the imaginary world from time to time. What’s more rewarding than to live through the experience of someone else on stage, shown through music and drama,  and sharing their passion while watching the tragedies or comedies unfold?

How did you go about planning the repertoire for this concert? Any
highlights that the audience should look out for?

All the music chosen in the concert are  from operas I have performed over the years. Many of them are iconic pieces that have been performed many times all over the world. They include highlights from Madama Butterfly, La Traviata, Carmen and La Boheme. The audience are guaranteed for a real treat as they will know most of the tunes and stories.

Any big plans for SLO in the coming years?

SLO will continue the work to promote operas, mounting large-scale opera productions, and doing more and more outreach programmes.

Our SLO Leow Siak Fah Artists’ Training Programme is going from strength to strength. We currently have nine participants working regularly to bring opera to the public, and helping more people appreciate the art of opera.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.

Jason Lai on Conducting Singapore Lyric Opera’s Gala Concert 2018

The main theme for this year’s Singapore Lyric Opera (SLO) Gala Concert is to celebrate the 30th anniversary of  Nancy Yuen, SLO’s artistic director, being in the opera scene.

I spoke to the concert maestro, Jason Lai, to find out more about the concert and his thoughts on our local opera scene. 

From a conductor’s point of view, what qualities should an opera singer ideally have?

I love working with singers and the best ones are able to conduct the conductor. They have the ability to lead and be led, while being absolutely strong in their musical convictions. In the opera house, a singer also needs to able to act well and project their voice to the back of the hall without the need for amplification. It’s very difficult—try running across a stage, grabbing a sword, running at someone, while singing as if you life depended on it. And all this is done on a stage that is raked (sloped downwards toward the audience). This is not easy!

With several smaller opera companies arriving on the local scene, how would you describe Singapore’s opera scene? What do you think is lacking?

It’s quite an exciting time on the local opera scene, and I’m glad that opera is beginning to take off in Singapore. I think it’s largely a question of funding; opera is an expensive business and all those sets, costumes, and orchestras don’t come cheap. But when it all comes together, it’s thrilling.

The question is how do you get an audience to come along with you as you explore the world of opera? What would it take to build that audience? I’ve always been a huge proponent of musical education, and I often talk about music in concerts before I conduct it.  So  it’s also a question of how could we guide the audiences more, and help them grasp what they are seeing and hearing? There’s a culture of Chinese opera here in Singapore that has a strong following. The challenge is to find a way to do the same for Western opera. How do we make it more accessible and attractive? This takes a lot of effort and outreach.

Are there any artistic challenges when it comes to conducting this concert? Is there a particular piece in the concert’s repertoire that excites you?

There are always going to be artistic challenges in any concert. When you put on an opera gala, you’ll have singers, orchestra, and chorus, and that can be tricky to get all of these forces working together. Galas are also tricky in terms of performing music from many composers and that means being sensitive to different styles. There are many chunks of Verdi and Puccini that I will be looking forward to conducting for the first time.


Gala Concert 2018: A Pearl Celebration for Soprano Nancy Yuen will be held on 9 November 2018 at the Esplanade Concert Hall. Tickets from $40 via Sistic.